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IN the poorer parts of my district nicknames were rather the
rule than the exception. All who were in any way recognised as characters in the
neighbourhood - and many who were not so recognised - were best known by some
sobriquet, founded upon their calling, personal appearance, or characteristic
quality. In not a few instances, indeed, they had more than one nickname by
which they were familiarly known. Thus, if you had asked those living in the
same street with him whether they knew Mr. Smith, or even Jim Smith, nine out of
ten of them would in all probability have answered, "Not as they know'd
on." But if asked whether they knew "Old Buy-'em-of-the-grower,"
or "Grumpy," they would as promptly have replied that they
"should rather think they did." By one or other, or both of those
names, he was well known. He was a costermonger, a man of about fifty years of
age, given to dressing in such tight-fitting garments, that the wags of the
neighbourhood were wont to observe, jestingly, that he looked as if he had been
born in them; and certain it was that they brought his tall, gaunt, somewhat
ungainly figure into [-365-] unnecessarily strong
relief. His face was always smoothly shaven, his grisly iron-grey hair closely
cropped. His chin was square and massive, his cheek-bones prominent, his eyes
sunken, his bushy eyebrows overhanging, and his forehead deeply lined.
Altogether he was a hard-featured customer, and was generally allowed to be
hard-headed; while there were not wanting some who declared that he was
Of its kind Buy-'ern-of.the-grower did as good a business as any in the neighbourhood. He probably did as large a "chance" trade as any other coster in the district, and he undoubtedly had the best private connection - a connection which he had established and maintained by uprightness of dealing. He was perhaps a little more brusque in his manner to customers - whether "chance" or regular-than he ought to have been. "No two prices" was one of his trade mottoes, and he promptly, and with a standing formula borrowed from the "patter" of the cheap Jacks, cut short any attempt to "beat him down." "I've named my price," he would say, "I ask no more and I'll take no less - sell it or never sell it, buy it who may."
But it was found by experience that, quality considered, his goods were as cheap as those of traders who would allow their prices to be beaten down. It was found also that his word could be relied upon; that if the selection of goods was left to him, or he specifically recommended them, they would prove to be good or the best of their kind. His manner, doubtless, drove away some cus-[-366-]tomers, but upon the whole his mode of dealing led to his retaining the class of customers who were best worth having. That he did do a good and paying business was a matter of common knowledge among those who knew him, and it being also known that he had only a small household to maintain, that he was and always had been a frugal man, and was a staunch teetotaller, it was inferred that "he must have a tidy old stocking somewhere."
On the other hand, it was notorious that he was exceedingly chary of subscribing to any of the collections, or "whip-rounds" that were frequently made in the neighbourhood. Putting these two circumstances together, a number of those who were rather given to boasting that they had the heart that could feel for another, were wont, as I have already hinted, to put down old Buy-'em-of-the-grower as a hard-hearted as well as a hard-headed customer. In this, however, they misrepresented him. Though shrewd in judgment, a keen hand at a bargain, and by no means habitually given to the melting mood, those who knew him best were aware that on what he deemed fitting occasions he could be generously charitable, and that in the spirit of one who would do good by stealth and blush to find it fame. They knew, moreover, that his objection to give to the ordinary subscriptions of the neighbourhood was founded upon principle. The immediate circumstances of the case might be truly distressing, but in too many instances the distress was in some greater or less degree the [-367-] result of drink, and it was on this score that he refused to give. Against drink and evils resulting from it he certainly did harden his heart. I have heard many powerful denunciations of drink, but so far as I remember none that were quite so strong and pointed as old Buy-'em-of-the-grower's. Poison was his generic term for intoxicating drinks ; he always spoke of drunkards as beasts, and public-houses as man-traps or devil's-dens; and the remedy he was wont to propose when inveighing against the evil of drunkenness was certainly about as wholesale and decisive as could well be imagined. "Make a river of all the drink in the country," he would say, "and drown all the drunkards in it, and then start afresh with a law to hang the first man who was caught making so much as a teaspoonful of any sort of the poison. If yer don't do that, or summit else of the kind, yer may pass Acts of Parliament and the like by the score, and do no good worth speaking of. It's drink and the country for it, and if the country don't sink drink, drink'll sink the country - them's my sentiments, though I mayn't live to see 'em come to pass."
On other great questions too "Buy-'em-of-the-grower" had his sentiments, and was given to expressing them in his own style, for though a man of few words in a general way, he was always ready to "argufy" on any social or political subject in which he took an interest. Education was the topic upon which he most frequently got into discussion, and many a tough and warm debate [-368-] have I heard him maintain with neighbours who were inclined to think lightly of, or even to take a pride in, their own want of education, who cited the circumstance of their having themselves made a livelihood as a justification for not educating their children, or contended that education did not profit a working man - did not raise his wages or make his labour lighter.
"You needn't trouble to tell that you ain't edicated," Buy-'em-of-the-grower would say to these, in his "grumpy" manner, "any one as heard you speak would know that fast enough; yer so ignorant that you are ignorant of your own ignorance. I ain't much of a scholard myself; but still I can put my fist to a bill, and don't need to tell my affairs to other people if I want to write a letter: and I can read my book or my newspaper, and so know what better folk than myself think or have thought, or what is goin' on in the world. I can do that much any way, and I picked it up myself after I was old enough to feel the want of it, and any one else as was so minded might do the same. There ain't any excuse nowadays for any one as ain't a born idiot not being able to read and write a bit, and in my opinion a feller as can't read or write oughtn't to be counted as a civilised being. Edication is what I call the sixth sense, and 'ceptin' among savages a man with no edication at all is pretty much as if he was without eyes and ears, for he can know nothing of what's going on in the world. As to edication not helping a poor man in his work, why, of course, there would have to be costers and labourers all [-369-] the same if every one was edicated, we couldn't all be the sort that don't have to pull a coat off or soil a hand, or else the mill would stop altogether. At the same time ninety-nine out of the hundred chances a poor man may have of rising in the world, are chances that a man with an edication can take, and a man without an edication can't; besides, if you are to remain a poor man all your life, that is no reason why you should remain an ignoramus."
These were Buy~'em.of.thegrower's views upon the question of education, and he had the merit of consistently acting up to them. He had married rather late in life, and at the time of which I am writing was a widower with an only child, a boy of fifteen, who was known as "Young Buy-'em." He had kept the boy regularly at day-school, until at eleven years of age he had withdrawn him to assist in the business, and from that time he had sent him to an evening class held in a neighbouring ragged school, and taught by volunteers from among the managers. It had been started as an adult class, and the bulk of those attending it were adults; but thanks to his having been sent to day-school at a very early age, and kept at it with exemplary regularity, and to his being naturally a bright and intelligent boy, young Buy-'em, in addition to being one of the most punctual attendants at the evening class, was also one of the most advanced pupils in it. He seemed to like his lessons and to get through them with ease, and that, all these things considered, he would leave the class [-370-] without a word of notice was very improbable, though it was a common enough practice with the general run of. the night-scholars. When, therefore, at the period of which I am now writing, a week passed without anything having been seen or heard of him at the school, I determined to call at his home with a view to ascertain the reason of his absence. I knew that about four in the afternoon would be the likeliest time to find either him or his father in the house, and accordingly I made my call at that hour.
Young Buy-'em, who was big for his age, and smartly and strongly built, was standing in the doorway as I turned into the street, and I noticed that he coloured deeply on catching sight of me. On getting up to him I could easily guess the cause of his embarrassment. He had a black eye, and bore other marks of having been engaged in a pugilistic encounter.
"Ah I I see now why you haven't been to school," I said; "and I'm sorry for it. I didn't think you were the kind of boy to get brawling and fighting."
"I hope you don't think so now, sir," he said, in a rather injured tone; "no one ever saw me with a face like this before, and that's why I was so ashamed of it, and didn't care about coming to school till it got better; but it wasn't my fault, sir, I couldn't help the fight."
"Did you try to help it?" I asked.
He appeared at a loss for an answer, and while he was hesitating the father stepped to the door, and, taking up the conversation, said -
[-371-] "Well, begging your pardon, sir, and meaning no disrespect to you, I should hope that he didn't try to help it."
"I don't like to hear a father encourage a child in fighting," I said, in a tone of rebuke.
"No more don't I, in a general way," he answered, "and no one can say as I've encouraged my Jim here, but more the other way about; for when, boy-like, he was inclined to fight over little things, I've always brought him in, and taught him that such things weren't worth fighting about. But you see, sir, 'circumstances alter cases,' as the sayen is. He found a young feller - a young gentleman I suppose he would call himself, though there couldn't have been a grain of gentleman in his whole carcase - a insulting of Sweet Lavender and making her cry, and so he slipped into him; and, though he was three or four years older, and a head taller than Jim, he licked him like a sack in the end, though he caught it pretty warm, as you can see by his face. However, he'll get over that, and I should a been ready to have disowned him if he'd done less than he did. I should have done the same, either when I was his age or old as I am now. Knowing the poor little lass, and seeing her molested, I don't see that there was anything else for Jim but a word and a blow, and the blow first."
"I differ from you there," I said.
"Well, I dare say you do," he answered, "and perhaps it's me that's in the wrong; but, as the thing's past, there is no use argufying about it. According to my [-372-] way of thinking, the boy ain't got no cause to be ashamed of how he come by his damaged face - all the same he was ashamed to show up at school with it for fear of disgracing his class and getting into the black books with the gentleman; but I hope none of you will think any the wus of him."
"We shall all be very glad to see him back again," I said; "but tell me, who is Sweet Lavender?"
"Sing-song Thompson's child, wus luck for her to have such a father, poor little soul! She takes all after her mother, - is a delicate, soft-hearted, shy little thing, as the life he brings her up to must be pretty well slow death to, beside breaking her mother's heart. He wasn't content with sending her out with lavender - which wasn't so bad, as it only took her among women - but now he must make her go out button-hole-flower selling by day, and cigar-light selling by night. If I had a pretty little girl like that, I'd work till my arms dropped off rather'n send her street-selling at all; but all he thinks about is how to have an idle life of it by living on the earnings of his wife and child, never minding what they suffer, or what risk they run."
"Oh, I should hope there was scarcely any one so bad as that," I said.
"Which, putting him for that, sir, I should hope the same; but there is no mistake about his badness. He is about as bad a lot as could well be put together, and, to reckon him up in a word, and at a proper price, he is a willain. I should say that there has many a better man [-373-] than him been hanged. I never see him a-strutting and a-swaggering past me but what I feel my fingers a tingling, and think to myself, 'You paving-stone-hearted image, you, wouldn't I just like to take hold of you by the scruff of the neck, and shake the sawdust out o' you?"
"But who at all is Sing-song Thompson?" I asked. "Do I know him?"
"Well, if you don't know him," answered Buy-'em-of-the-grower, in the same grim tone in which he had spoken since the mention of this man, "that ain't much of a loss, but you must have seen him in some of your rambles, and he's the sort of customer that, once seen, is sure to be remembered. Not that there's anything partic'lar in his face or figure, for he's a good-looking feller; it's his dress and his style as you'll know him by. He's what I call not a shabby-genteel, for I suppose there's plenty has to be that from no fault of their own, but a beggarly-genteel; a feller that would sooner wear any dirty ragged cloth cast-offs, than sound, clean working clothes. He wears his hair long, his hat cocked on one side, a cloak over his shoulders, and his trousers strapped over his boots; and he walks with a strut, and rolls his eyes. Any one that didn't know him, and that saw him a swaggering along a street as if it belonged to him, might just laugh at him and think he was off his head; but it's bad not mad, rogue not fool, that he is."
By Buy-'em-of-the-grower's description I did recognise [-374-] a man whom I remembered having occasionally seen in the course of my walks about my district. He was certainly a somewhat eccentric-looking personage, but though I had sometimes wondered who or what he was, I had made no inquiries on that head, and now merely observed -
"Oh, so that is Sing-song Thompson, is it? - performs at the sing-songs* [* The name by which public-house Saturday-night concerts are popularly known among those who frequent them.] in the neighbourhood, I suppose?"
"Well, yes," was the answer, "after a fashion - his own fashion. He is too idle, and drunken, and good-for-nothing, to do even that in anything like a steady way. He had regular engagements at them when he first came to live hereabout, but he soon tired out the proprietors, and now he is more of a hanger-on to them than a performer at them. According to his own story - and I dare say it is true so far - he had been a regular actor in his day; and he talks very large about what great things he could have done in that line, and neglected talent, and such like, but I'll be bound to say that if he ever had any talent, it was drink and being too big for his boots, as the sayen is, as spoilt it. But any way he is a bad lot, and, as I told you, lives on the earnings of his wife and child; and though he wants to carry his own scamping head so high, and make out that he's above work, he doesn't care how low he makes them come, or how hard he slaves them, or makes them live. They are very quiet over it, poor things, for they're both of them of the [-375-] patient-soft-hearted sort; but for all that, the wife must feel it bitter hard. Though, for all his brag, and his calling better folk than himself scum, and such-like - which he does when the drink has put him on his stilts - he never would persuade me that there was even a grain of the gentleman in him: it is easy to see that his wife is a real little lady at heart, and has been very differently brought up to the likes of those she is placed among now. Not that she ever makes a talk of it - and that's one of the things which shows that she is the lady - but you can tell it from her words and her ways and her looks."
When Sing-song Thompson had become the topic of conversation, young Buy-'em had walked away, and his father and I had, up to this point, stood talking on the door-step. Now, however, some new idea appeared to have occurred to the old man, for he suddenly asked-
"Would you mind stepping inside, sir?"
"Not at all," I said ; "I should be pleased to do so."
"Come along, then," he said, and at once led the way into his living-room, which looked very clean and orderly, and was, in a plain style, very comfortably furnished. Glancing round the apartment, I was pleased to notice about a score of volumes arranged on a little sideboard, and among them a large-print Bible that had a look of being well used.
"I am glad to see this here," I said, taking the Bible in my hand.
"Not more glad than I am to have it, sir, I know," he [-376-] said, in his most emphatic tone. "Why, sir, if I was to talk to you for a week I couldn't tell you the comfort that I've got out of that. I was only too long in coming to know what good there is in it. It was just after my wife's death - ten years ago now - that I first took to reading my Bible. We'd been about as happy together as I suppose any couple well could be. I won't say we never had an angry word, but it was very seldom, and it was only the word and over; for, as the Book there tells us, we let not the sun go down on our wrath. When she was took from me I felt as if all was took that was worth living for. I got don't-carish and down-hearted, and said there was no more comfort for me. But the Scripter-reader who had visited my wife when she was on her death-bed used to drop in to see me after, and one day, when I was answering him in the gloomy, ill-tempered way I had fell into, he says to me, 'But there's comfort for you where there is comfort for all.' 'And where might that be?' I asked. 'Here,' he answers me, holding up his Bible; 'here, in God's Word. There is comfort there' - I remember his very words - ' for all who seek it, and more than comfort, hope and salvation.' I thought to myself at the moment, 'Oh, it's your trade to talk in that style.'
"But, thank God, his servant had done his work well! When he was gone his words kept ringing in my ears, and at night I dreamt of them. The next day they were still running in my mind, and I said to myself there must be something in what he said; I feel that I must [-377-] get a Bible and see. So when I came home from my round I went to a shop, and bought that very Bible you hold in your hand. I hurried home with it, and putting it on the table, and letting it fall open just where it liked, the first words as my eyes fell upon was, 'Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.' Talk of the right word in the right place, sir, them was such to me at that moment, and no mistake. I felt 'em strike on me quite solemn. I know'd enough about the Bible to be aware that it had been wrote long years and years afore I was born, and yet here, the instant I opened it, there were words a-staring me in the face as seemed as if they had been wrote a purpose for me. I was heavy-laden, and though I couldn't have put it into words properly myself; my feeling just was that I wanted for there to be somebody that could say to me, 'Come unto me, and I will give you rest.' And here was the invitation coming to me in what even at that moment - though I have understood it better since - I couldn't help feeling was a voice from heaven. I was thunderstruck, as the sayen is, and it was a minute or two before I could read the other two verses in the chapter they're the last three in the eleventh of Matthew, you know - 'Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly of heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
He repeated the words with the ease of one thoroughly familiar with them, and continuing his narrative, said,-
[-378-] "But how to take his yoke upon me? There I was in the dark, for up to that time I had lived pretty much like a heathen, as far as religion was concerned. But though I couldn't understand it rightly, I felt, somehow, that the message had reached me at last; that I had got a start on the right path, and I wasn't going to stand still. I sent for the Scripter-reader, and told him what I had done and how I was fixed, and asked him to help me, and he did. He explained to me what a bitter and heavy yoke our Lord had taken upon Him for us, how we were to take his yoke upon us, and what a light and loving yoke it was. He prayed with me, and prayed for me, and then sent me to the Book again with better heart and better light. It became like a companion and guide to me; and, as I told you, I found in it the comfort I wanted. I had said that my wife had been taken from me for ever, that I could never meet her again; but it taught me different - taught me that death can be robbed of its sting, and the grave of its victory; that those who live as it teaches us how to live, and as it should be pleasant to us to live, though they may be parted for a short time on this side of the grave, will meet on the other side of it, where parting is unknown, and sorrow cannot come."
During the latter part of his speech he had spoken with considerable elevation and solemnity of tone and manner, and for some moments after the conclusion of it, he remained with a somewhat rapt look upon his face. But suddenly rousing himself; so to speak, he fell into his [-379-] ordinary manner, as, with a slight wave of the hand, he said,-
"But there, sir, I didn't mean to take up your time talkin' about myself; only, you see, your takin' notice of the Bible brought all it had done for me into my mind; and out of the fulness of the heart the mouth speaketh. My reason for askin' you in was, that while I was speaking to you it came into my head that perhaps it might fall in your way to be able to do a good turn for Thompson's wife or child, and so I should like to tell you about them. Perhaps you may think, from the way I spoke about him, that it is more spite agen him than pity for them, that makes me speak, but though I can't help losing my temper a bit when I think of him, it's on their account I'm speakin', and if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't think it worth while to spend breath in so much as namin' him."
"I can quite believe that you are speaking from a good motive," I said; "but does this man ill-use his wife or child?"
"If you mean lay hands upon 'em, he doesn't," was the answer. "It's said that there is summat of good even in bad things, and that's the one bit of good that comes out of the high-flying notions as he makes the excuse for his lazy, good-for-nothing way of life. He'd think wife-beating wulgar; and it is, - and goodness forbid that I should ever say a word that seemed to make light of it - but, as the book says, the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel; and though it's wrong o' us, poor mortals, to [-380-] condemn one another, I will say that this Thompson is one of the wicked. He don't break his wife's head, but he is breaking her heart daily, and, in fact, killing her by inches, and, as you may say, through her mother's love, for that is what he works on: and if he don't beat his child, he does pretty well as bad - grinds her young bones to make his bread."
"What do the mother and child do?" I asked.
"Well, as I told you just now, the little girl goes street-selling. She takes lavender when it is in season - that's how she come to be called Sweet Lavender -and at other times flowers or cigar-lights. The mother does a breakfast-and-tea round with watercresses, and fills up her time at the slop shirt-making. Of course there are plenty of other women and children hereabout do the like, and nothing thought of it; but then, you see, they've been brought up to it, and these haven't, and that makes all the difference."
"Where do they live?" I asked.
"Just opposite," he answered; "that's how I come to know so much about them, and to feel for 'em, which I do, goodness knows."
"What has the woman been?" was my next question.
"Well, I couldn't, as you may say, go to regular give you her history," answered Buy-'em-of-the-grower, meditatively. "I've neighboured with her as much as I could see my way how, and as circumstances would allow, but I have never asked her anything as to who she was or what she might have been before she had the [-381-] misfortune to fall in with her precious husband. It didn't want much of a head-piece for you to understand that that would be a painful thing for her to talk about, and though I know I'm not reckoned much of a soft-hearted one, I'd a sooner cut my tongue out than a let it said a word - if I'd know'd it - to hurt her feelings; she has 'em quite enough hurt without that, poor thing. Still, from words that have been dropped now and then, and from keeping my eyes and ears open, I think I can pretty well put two and two together over the matter. Lumping it, as you may say, the story of her life is pretty much this way:- When the husband was an actor, he was one of your dashing blades as could act off the stage as well as on, and she, meeting him when she was quite a girl, and having her head full of nonsensical notions, as girls often do, took him to be the grand what-you-may-call he set himself up for being."
I think Buy-'em-of-the-grower meant "hero," but I (lid not interrupt him to ask.
"She fell in love with him," he went on, "and he, thinking it would be a good thing for him, persuaded her to run away with him and marry him. But though she was a lady in manners, and had been well brought up, neither she nor her people were well-to-do; and when he found that, instead of having a wife to keep him, he had a wife that he was expected to keep, he began to come out in his true colours. Seeing that the thing couldn't be undone, some of her friends did, for her sake, help them a little; but when they couldn't do it any longer, [-382-] and she through her child was tied to him, they began to go down hill fast, and at last they landed here. They weren't quite so badly off then as they are now, but the first time I set eyes on her I said to myself, 'Ah, you've seen the day when you never thought of living in a place like this.' I could see how she dropped her eyes as she passed along the street, and how her colour went and came under the staring of the neighbours. It was the same with the child too. Though it was poorly dressed, it was always as clean and neat as a pink. You could see that it hadn't been left to scratch for itself like most of those hereabout are, and if it had to come out among them it seemed quite frightened. I had seen both them before I saw him, but the instant I did clap eyes on him I knew why the family was there - that it was through him.
"They kept themselves pretty much to themselves, but still, living opposite to them, I could see a good deal of their way of life. In a narrow street like this, the shadows on the blinds tell tales to those who like to watch them, and can put two and two together. Many a night I've stood in the dark in my own room a watching the shadows a-movimg about in theirs, and I ain't ashamed to own it, for though I say it, as perhaps shouldn't, I watched them as much from kindness as curiosity. I saw things as made my heart sore, but I saw things, too, as it was grand to see - things as might a been a lesson to many. I've known them to be pretty nigh all day without breaking their fast; I've seen them crying in each [-383-] other's arms as though their hearts would break; but I saw, too, that the child was never sent to bed a night without saying her prayers at the mother's knees; and when, in the summer months, they had their room window open like the rest of us, I could hear the words of the prayers, and they always ended with a 'Pray God bless father, and make him a better man.'
"For all his bad behaviour, she was always loving and patient with him too; and though, mark you, I've spoke my mind to you about him, I wouldn't say a word agen him to her. His faults have been her misfortune, and she suffers enough through 'em without people talking to her about them.
"When they first took up their quarters here, he had engagements, such as they were, but he soon began to drink himself out of them, and as things got worse and worse with them, and the wife got to look paler and thinner every day, I used to think when I saw her, 'You brave, good little soul, I would like to help you if I only saw my way to doing it without hurtin' your feelin's.'
"But it was some time before I did see my way, for though she would pass the time of day, if we happened to be coming out of doors at the same time, she seemed too timid to do more. At last, however, one winter's morning I was passing the pawn-shop at the top of the street, when I caught sight of her with a parcel under her arm, and, though she was hanging back and a making believe to be only looking in at the sale-window, I could tell by her shamefaced uneasy look what her errand was; [-384-] and I knew, too, fast enough, without any telling, that cold though the weather was, it would be some of her own clothes she was going to part with; for he wouldn't have let anything of his have gone, arid she wouldn't have taken anything of the child's while there was a rag of her own to be made away with. I watched her on the quiet, and I saw her walk up to the door of the shop quite half-a-dozen times, and then, just as her foot was on the step, change colour and turn back again, just as you hear of some people doing when they go to have a tooth out. Seeing her so distressed, I thought, 'Well, I will speak to you now;' but when I started to do it, my heart failed me over that, as hers did over the going into the pawn-shop, and so I went on my round, leaving her there.
"When I got home I saw the child standing at the door, and then it comes into my head all in a minute, 'Make friends with the child, that's the way to make friends with the mother.' So I beckons her across, and give her a couple of nice apples that I had in my stock, and stroked her hair and called her a good little girl, and spoke a word or two to her in a fatherly sort of way, though that sort of thing wasn't much in my line. The next morning, when I was loading my barrow, she spoke to me out of the window, and the mother, hearing us talking, comes to the window and joins in with us; and that was the beginning of our being neighbourly. She always tried to bear up, but now and again she would let fall a word about her troubles; and at length, one evening, [-385-] she came over, and saying, with a look as made me feel proud, that I was her only friend, asked me if I knew where the women in the street that she saw sewing got their work from. I told her it was shirts, and what starvation prices was paid for it; but she said she would be glad to earn even a trifle, and didn't care how hard she worked. 'Well, if that was it,' I said, I thought I could get her a share of the work, as I sometimes served the manager of the outfitting shop that the shirts were for, and knew him well enough to be able to ask him to give work to a hand. She said she would be truly obliged to me if I would, and so I did; and went security for her, though I didn't tell her that. She turned out to be clever with her needle, and she taught the little girl to help her, and stuck to work late and early, and so, the prices considered, did very fairly out of it.
"They were just beginning to scrape along pretty comfortably when Sing-song himself got turned out of the last of the engagements that he had still hung on to. Then they began to come down-hill again, till at last, one day when there was nothing in the house for the mother or the child to eat, and, what he cared a great deal more about, nothing for him to get drink with, he got on his stilts. He rolled out all sorts of big words and bits of plays about being neglected and hard done by, and cried out as he wouldn't bear it no longer, but would put an end to himself. Most women would have told him that was about the best thing he could do, but she, poor thing, only cried and begged of him not to take on so, [-386-] and said that she would see what could be done; and that was the beginning of her taking to selling the creases. Her clean, neat appearance soon got her a good round among the better sort of houses, and though people mightn't think it, there is a good deal more made out of such things as creases, when you really do a trade in 'em, than out of needle-work. He saw that fast enough, and that was what set him on sending the child out to sell. The mother fought against that harder than she ever fought against anything, but she gave way in the end, when he flared out and talked again about putting an end to himself. But she felt it none the less for all that, and I believe it has broken her down more than all the rest of her troubles. At any rate she is breaking. Though there is not much more than a handful of her, and for all she is so tender-hearted in some things, she has one of your reg'lar die-in-harness spirits. She struggles on to keep the pot a-boiling, as the sayen is, but she is dying on her feet; there's death writ on her face. Hers has been a mighty hard journey, but it's about finished now. She's pretty nigh home, sir, where, as you know the Book says, 'the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest.' If it was only her that was concerned, it would perhaps hardly be worth while meddling with things; but if you could do anything for the little girl, could get her into an institution, or something of that kind, it would be a good deed."
"That will be a difficult sort of matter to accomplish [-387-] against the will of a parent," I said; "however, I shall call and see the family. And with this assurance I took my leave of Buy~'em-of-the-grower thinking more highly of him than I had ever done before, though I had always entertained a good opinion of him.
Two days later I called at the home of the Thompsons, where I found the mother and child busily engaged in "bundling" watercresses. The place was woefully ill-furnished, but unlike the majority of such scantily furnished homes, was thoroughly clean, and the mother and child might be said to be in keeping with the home in that, though very poorly clad, they were scrupulously neat and clean. The real age of the mother was probably little, if any, more than thirty, but toil and trouble had so aged her that she might easily have been taken to be fifty. The age of Sweet Lavender, as it appeared she was generally called, was ten, and she was a well-grown, pretty-looking child for her years; such a child as others beside old Buy-'em would have thought it shame and pity to send street-selling. As yet, however, it was easy to see that the nature of the child had not suffered deterioration from her way of life. Whatever of evil influence there might be in such a life had fallen from her innocency of mind as from a shield, and the teaching that amid all her trials her mother had found means to bestow upon her, had fallen upon good ground. She was well-mannered; though she had never been to other than a Sunday-school, she was a fair scholar, and, more than all, she had been taught a lesson but too seldom, [-388-] alas taught to the children of the very poor - to seek her Creator in the days of her youth.
After this first visit I called pretty frequently, and the mother was always pleased to receive me, but it was evident she did not care to speak about her past life. Not, as I judged, from any sense of shame or desire for concealment, but simply in a spirit of resignation. Her thoughts, I fancy, were to the effect that her past was a painful one, and the evil wrought in it beyond recall or remedy, and that therefore it was the wiser plan to let the "dead past bury its dead," rather than keep alive memories that might give rise to bitterness of feeling. She bore her cross not only bravely, but uncomplainingly, uttering no murmur on her own account, no word of reproach against the worthless husband who had brought her to this low estate. No thought of leaving him had ever crossed her mind, her idea apparently being that his badness, and the fact that all others who knew him held him in scorn, were additional reasons why she should stand by him in wifely love and duty. In any endeavour to interfere in the family arrangements Sing-song Thompson had, therefore, to be considered and consulted, and whenever I attempted to hint to him that the manner in which his daughter was employed was not perhaps all that could be desired for a young girl, or began to sound him on the subject of trying to get her admitted into some institution where she would be fitted for better things, he, in the phrase of Buy-'em-of-the-grower, got on his stilts, and talked very grandiloquently of his own flesh [-389-] and blood, an Englishman's home being his castle, insults offered to misfortune, and the like. So, with all the will to serve Sweet Lavender, I could not see my way to doing it; and indeed, seeing that my visits were - after I had broken the ice with the father - likely to do her and her mother harm rather than good, I took to making my calls few and far between.
I had learned nothing of the family that materially added to the knowledge that I had previously gathered from what Buy-'em-of-the-grower had told me. The story of their past life that he had managed to piece together was substantially accurate, while their life, since they had been his neighbours, was about as well known to him as to themselves. I told him of the failure of my efforts, whereupon, with a half-sigh, he exclaimed-
"Ah, well, in course I'm sorry, sir, very sorry, but at the same time I can't say that I'm much surprised. I pretty well expected as how he'd block the way; he is the out-and-outest bad lot that ever I did come across, and I've known some baddish customers, mind you. However, there is this in it, sir, as the Book says, though 'the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak,' and the wife's health won't let her go slaving on much longer, and when she can't work for him you'll see Mr. Sing-song will take himself off and then, if no better offers for 'em, why neither mother nor child shall want a friend while I have a home to call my own, or one coin to rub agen another."
He spoke in a quiet matter-of-fact tone, but he was [-390-] none the less earnest on that account. He deliberately meant what he said, and when, about a year later, the day of trial came, he nobly kept his word.
That Sing-song Thompson was "a bad lot," there could be no doubt. It was palpable that he was, and had been a thoroughly bad man - vain, bombastic, utterly and cruelly selfish, lazy, cunning, and a drunkard. In estimating his character, however, at the period when I came to know him, I differed on one material point from Buy-em-of-the-grower. I was led to the conclusion that while there was a good deal of badness, there was also a little madness in his composition. It appeared to me that the shocks and irritation to which his overweening vanity must have been subjected in the course of his downward career, had, in conjunction with hard living and hard drinking, affected his brain, and was slowly but surely undermining it further every day. This view, as the event proved, was correct. The following winter was a very severe one, and the suffering it entailed quite broke down Mrs. Thompson, despite the strongest efforts of her too willing spirit. An attack of ague and low-fever laid her prostrate. She had been confined to her bed for two days without having received the slightest medical aid, before the neighbours knew that she was ill. When they did discover how matters stood, the women in the street expressed their feeling by publicly, and in no very gentle style, "crying shame" on the husband for his neglect. Under this goading Sing-song Thompson rushed excitedly to the relieving office, and peremptorily demanded assist-[-391-]ance. On an attempt being made to question him, he at once "got upon the stilts," and after denouncing the officials as a "menial pack," utterly unworthy of being mentioned in the same breath as such a man as he, stalked out of the office and was seen no more at his home until a little after midnight, - the "closing time" of the public- houses. He was then carried there fall of drink, and a raving lunatic. Before noon he was removed by the proper authorities, but those intervening hours of terror had been sufficient to snap the last frail thread of life in the unfortunate wife. Ill as she was, she had struggled from her bed to assist in the task of restraining and soothing her husband, and when after his removal she lay down again, it was to die - and she knew it. Her life for years past had, in very deed, been a life of sorest hardship and bitterest trial, but the end at last was peace. Buy-'em-of-the-grower and two female neighbours, who had volunteered their services as nurses, were with myself around her bed when the great change came. Kind faces met her dying glances, kindly hands lovingly and reverently closed her eyes for her last long sleep. As regarded herself she seemed not to fear death, but to welcome it as a friend and deliverer. But the thought of her child seemed to weigh heavily upon her mind, and so to speak to still chain it to this world. Though for a long time she lay silent, and with closed eyes, the workings of the thin, worn face told of a spirit ill at ease.
"Oh, my child, my poor child!" she at length feebly [-392-] groaned out. "What will become of her? If I could but know that she had a friend I should die happy."
She opened her eyes and looked round appealingly till her gaze met that of Buy-'em-of-the-grower's. It was evident that he wished to speak, but was too strongly moved at the moment to command his voice. She fixed her eyes eagerly upon his face, and the changing expression of her own countenance showed that something in his looks had given rise to a feeling of hope in her breast. She became strongly agitated, and seeing this, the old man by a powerful effort controlled his emotion so far as to be able to speak. Taking her hand in his, sinking gently on to his knees by the bedside, and speaking in a low, earnest tone, he said-
"She shall never want a friend while I live. Please God, I'll be a father to her as long as health and strength is left to me, and try to fit her to earn a living for herself by the time I'm past earning one for her."
She had slightly raised her head, but now she let it fall back on the pillow, and, with a sigh of relief, exclaimed-
"Oh, I am so happy! God is very good to me!"
After this there was stillness and silence again for a minute or two, and then guiding his hand to her lips, she kissed it, and as she did so murmured -
"You good, good man; you true Christian."
Buy-'em-of-the-grower was not only affected, but confused by this expression of the dying woman's gratitude, and being at a loss what to say, fell back upon "the Book," muttering, rather incoherently, and yet not alto-[-393-]gether unaptly, "Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me." Presently, becoming calmer, he gently withdrew his hand from hers, and in a kindly, significant tone, said, "There are other things to be remembered, Mrs. Thompson."
She understood his meaning, and turning her gaze on me, said, in as emphatic a tone as her weakness would allow of-
"I can pray with you now, sir."
I had before prayed with her, but though she had attempted to join in the words, her thoughts had evidently been elsewhere. Now, however, with her mind relieved by Buy-'em-of-the-grower's generous promise, she listened to my prayer with all intensity and fervency of spirit, occasionally repeating words of it after me, or giving vent to some prayerful exclamation of her own. "Father, receive my spirit!', "Saviour, take me home!" were the last articulate words she uttered. Her lips continued to move as if in prayer for some time afterwards, and, to judge from the smile that dawned upon her face when the spirit had passed to Him who gave it, with her death had no sting and the grave no victory.
I have said that his neighbours credited Buy-'em-of-the-grower with the possession of an "old stocking," and they were right. He had "money to the good," and out of his savings he paid for a modest funeral for Sweet Lavender's mother, and the child's father dying a few weeks later, there was none to interfere with the old man's intention of adopting her. From the hour that he [-394-] took her under his roof, no father could have been kinder to her, or more thoughtful about her, than he was, and certainly no child could have loved a parent more fondly than she grew to love him. It was a pleasant sight to see the proud and happy look of the old man, as all dressed in their "Sunday best" he trotted off to chapel with his son and his adopted daughter on either side of him; and to the few who were privileged to witness the scene, it was yet a pleasanter sight to see the three seated around the fire of their cosey little living-room reading their evening chapter from the Book, "verse and verse about."
When the girl was about fourteen, young Buy-'em went into the service of a large market gardener, and only came home to his father's on Sundays. This threw the other two more closely together, and if possible increased their affection for each other, and perhaps it had something to do with bringing about a change in the relations between young Buy-'em and the girl. When she was about sixteen I heard incidentally that they were "keeping company," and meeting the old man some little time afterwards, I asked him if such was the case.
"Well, you may say it is, and you may say it isn't," was the answer. "They haven't said anything to me right out yet, and as I can trust 'em both, I haven't asked 'em; but all the same I can see that they are as good as sweethearting. You see they were always very fond of each other, but I think they hardly knew in which way till Jim went away from home. I do believe now, you know, that they must have been a sort of little sweet-[-395-]hearts that there time, you remember, when he got the black eye over her. Between you and me, sir, it's a making a man of him. I can tell to a T how it is. He's said to himself, 'I should like to have Sweet for a wife, but I should like too to have a nice home to offer her, and to be able to keep her like a little lady as she is, and so I shall go in hard for trying to make something of myself.' That's just what he's a-doing anyway. He reads all sorts of works about farming and the like, and he goes to a night-school to learn chemistry and other things, as he says you must know nowadays if you mean to be up to the mark in farming. As far as business goes, he don't mean to be one of the It-was-my-father's-custom-and-so- it-shall-be-mine kind. 'Go-a-head' is his motto, and he don't mean standing still."
In one sense, at any rate, it turned out that young Buy-'em certainly did not mean to stand still, for, provided with a little capital, made up of some savings of his own and part of his father's, he emigrated to Australia, and commenced farming there on his own account. Before he went Sweet Lavender and he were formally plighted; and at the end of five years he returned to make her his wife, and take her and his father back with him. He was even then a comparatively well-to-do man, and in a fair way to in time become a rich one.
After what I have had to tell of him here, it will readily be believed that, notwithstanding his "grumpiness" of manner, Buy-'em-of-the-grower was one of the kindest of men. Though never slow to utter reproof [-396-] where he considered it needful, even those to whom he most frequently administered a "tongue-dressing" did him the justice of believing him to be one of the noblest and best-hearted of the characters of the district. On the day fixed for his departure, he was compelled to hold a sort of farewell levee, and more than one rough coster, who had probably never shed a tear since their childhood, fairly broke down, as they wrung his hand and bade him a last good-bye.
I took my own farewell of him as the ship was leaving the dock. I found him sad of mood, but characteristically finding consolation for himself in "the Book," as be invariably styled the Bible.
"I had always thought, sir," he said, with a slight tremble in his voice, "to have had my old bones laid beside my wife's; but, after all, sir, it don't matter much, it was only a fancy of mine. If we do but live as the Book tells us, it don't matter whether we are buried in England or Australia, or, as far as that goes, at the bottom of the sea. There is no knowledge in the grave; and we shall all meet again on the great day, when in the twinkling of an eye the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and the mortal put on immortality." He was looking dreamily skyward as he spoke, and his gaze was still fixed above till he became lost to my sight.